40 return after months of work in Afghanistan

Published 12:03 pm Friday, July 23, 2010

After nearly a year of finding and detonating explosive devices in Afghanistan, 40 Army Reservists were honored by the 412th Theater Engineer Command Thursday during a welcome home ceremony.

When they reached the war zone last Oct. 15, the Deployable Command Post 1 became the Joint Force Engineer Command-Afghanistan at Bagram Airbase, 412th Public Affairs Officer Maj. Jesse Stalder said.

Working for the U.S. Forces Afghanistan engineer section, the soldiers’ primary mission was to clear roads of Improvised Explosive Devices, IEDs, said Lt. Col. Mark Leighton of Pearl.

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“One of our missions was to train new soldiers to make sure that they were able to identify those IEDs,” said Leighton. “One way to get rid of it is to blow it up. So, we had to teach them how that’s done safely so nobody gets injured.”

Clearing devices in the East, West, South, North, Southwest and Capital regions of Afghanistan, soldiers saw differences in technology used in making the bombs that are responsible for most combat casualties, Leighton said.

“We had a different enemy in a different area,” Leighton said.

Vicksburg resident Master Sgt. Lanyard Armstrong, who was in charge of supply and maintenance, said the group also was responsible for moving billions of dollars of equipment.

“I felt really glad I was doing something for the Afghans,” said the father of three. “With us being there, we gained their trust. That’s what brings nations together.”

Armstrong’s wife, Celia, preferred his being home.

During the ceremony at the George Morris Army Reserve Center on Porters Chapel Road, Maj. Gen. Paul Hamm, commander of the 412th, said the soldiers reviewed and validated more than 500 projects valued at more than $700 million; managed 100 engineer capabilities including a Naval construction regiment, an Army engineer brigade, a forward engineering support team-main, Naval mobile construction battalions, engineer battalions and 25 engineer companies conducting route clearance of IEDs.

They developed equipment designed for route clearance and provided supplies for 65 fully operational route clearance platoons.

“Each soldier and their family should be proud of their accomplishment despite the obstacles. It’s not easy to be far from home for a year and work in a hostile environment,” said Hamm. “Your nation needed you and again, you stepped forward to answer the call of duty.”

Maj. Eric Owens, in charge of land mine removal and exploded ordnance — “anything that could blow up” — said before U.S. forces could set up any bases, the land had to be cleared of explosives.

“It truly makes you appreciate what you have here at home especially when you see how people live in that country with all the hazards,” said the father of three. “It truly makes you appreciate the United States as a great place to live. I’m happy to be home with my family, back to a normal life again.”

His wife, Laura, said she was glad she did not understand all of his duties when he was deployed.

“He didn’t tell me some things until he got back,” said Laura Owens.

Vicksburg Mayor Paul Winfield said he was proud of the work the 412th had done.

“We’ve recognized the price of freedom isn’t free,” said Winfield, adding the progress the soldiers had made “shows more work is ahead.”

Thursday, he alluded to the farewell ceremony last year when he encouraged “operating as a unit” to about 60 soldiers. Some are still serving in Afghanistan while others are on leave.

Soldiers received an American flag encased in wood and glass, a yellow Welcome Home Warrior-Citizen flag, an Army Reserve soldier lapel set and a commemorative coin. Their children received either a Teddy bear dressed in fatigues with a yellow ribbon on the pocket or an Army draw-string bag.

The 412th has had multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. This deployment was the first since 412th converted to a theater engineer command from an engineer command as part of the Army’s new modular force structure.

More than 160 members of the Clinton-based Mississippi Army National Guard 114th Military Police were to return to base today after a yearlong training mission with Iraqi police.